Sharps & Flats

New Jack Swingers Guy killed old-school R&B. On "III," the trio gets what's coming.

Published February 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Guy took contemporary rhythm and blues away from singers -- dynamic
vocalizers who played with words like feathers -- and gave it to
stylists, artists who complemented adequate singing with a
broader sense of performance. The trio was led by Teddy Riley, an
unassuming producer from suburban Virginia raised in a musical
family. In the late '80s, Riley pioneered a way to meld R&B
vocals with synthesized, club-tempo beats that approximated the
edge of that era's hip-hop. The new genre was dubbed New Jack
Swing, and it was with the trio Guy -- Riley, Aaron Hall and
Timmy Gatling -- that he found his muse.

Of the complete group (Gatling was replaced by Damion Hall after
the first album), only one, Aaron Hall, could saaaang. The rest
floated on slick suits, thin ties, hi-top fades and generic,
tinny beats. Before Guy, the R&B world had been content with its
Luther Vandrosses and Peabo Brysons -- genteel, portly men who
weren't overtly threatening sexually. Afterward, sexy stage men dominated the pop R&B world, and so many flashier imitators rushed in that the trio could no longer compete.

Over two albums, Guy managed to play out its Casio-based style. But New Jack was too patently romantic, too full of commercial promise to die. Guy's sultry, casual ballads,
like "Let's Chill," allowed for an easy style of semihorny male
confessional, leaving footsteps for future New Jackers -- Jodeci, Silk, 112 and Color Me Badd
-- to follow stylistically if not musically.

These past few years have seen the Guy prophecy fulfilled:
Rappers routinely show up on R&B tracks, crooners croon under
underwhelming MCs, De La Soul takes swipes at the phenomenon on their records.
Despite the general backlash against the concept, the trend shows
no sign of drying up, especially as Puffy
and his clones continue to rifle through the cutout bin for
musical inspiration.

Now, almost a full decade since their last point of relevance,
Guy has put aside personal squabbles (we didn't know!) and
musical differences (we didn't care!) to make one last attempt to
clean out the bank it opened. It's an ill-advised move. Despite
Riley's later, quality work with the pop outfit Blackstreet, the
quartet he formed after Guy dissolved, his production here seems
willfully retro. Even "We're Comin," perhaps the most
contemporary-sounding track on the album, sounds like a
second-rate "No Diggity." "Not a Day" echoes Billy Ocean's
"Suddenly" (and a whole slew of mid-'80s pop ballads) and "Why
You Wanna Keep Me From My Baby" -- which reads like testimony
from Aaron Hall's custody hearing -- almost reaches the height of
Hall's big solo hit "Missing You" before collapsing under a sea
of fake strings, fake organ and slow snare kicks.

Elsewhere, middling talent is undermined by loathsome concept.
"Love on Line" may as well be subtitled "Prelude to a Stalking"
(and I'll take Britney
"E-Mail My Heart" over this drivel any day). Finally,
on "Someday" the boys emote, "Someday, we'll all be free." In the
'60s, if a soul man had inserted that line into a love song, it
could be safely assumed that he wanted to liberate the race as
much as his lady's virtue. Yet today, such hope runs thin (and
I'll take Spears' "Sometimes" over this drivel any day).

Drowning in platitudinous ballads and saccharine sex jams, Guy's
resurrection is hardly the millennial event that the Roman
numerals of the title suggest. Riley's role in urban music has
been usurped by those he schooled: Timbaland and The Neptunes,
literally, and Puffy and Rodney Jerkins, metaphorically. This
feeble comeback attempt only proves that Teddy's jams are jilted,
and that his ego outstrips his remaining musical vision. "So you
think you made it to the top, huh?" he asks on the album's
introduction, "but we're back." It's not really a threat -- more
like an empty promise.

By Jon Caramanica

Jon Caramanica is a writer living in New York.

MORE FROM Jon Caramanica

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